Are you interested in animal behavior? An ethology career may appeal to you. Ethology is the interdisciplinary field of study that pertains to animal behavior.
To become an ethologist, you’re going to need at least a bachelor’s degree and potentially an advanced level of education.
What Is an Ethologist?
Ethologists are scientists who are focused on studying animal behavior. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies ethology, also known as behavioral ecology, as a specialization within zoology and wildlife biology. Ethologists, along with comparative psychologists and related careers like sociobiologists and behavioral ecologists, are all part of the animal behaviorist occupation.
As a field of study, ethology is considered to be an interdisciplinary field that combines the theories and methods of biology with those found in comparative psychology. However, the primary approach of ethologists is based on biological science, which differentiates this role from other careers related to the study of how animals behave.
There are some similarities between ethology and comparative psychology, but the field of comparative psychology emphasizes the principles and practices of psychology more strongly than biological theories. In between these two paths is the field known more generally as “animal behavior,” a broader term used to describe the area of animal science study and observation that balances both sides of the field more evenly.
What Do Ethologists Do?
The main objective of ethologists is to conduct animal behavior research into the causes, functions, development and evolution of animal behavior.
Ethologists focus their scientific study on areas like the internal and external stimuli that cause the behavior of animal species, the effects that adaptive responses have on the animal, changes in behavior over the lifespan and how behavior patterns have begun and evolved across generations.
How does a scientist go about studying all of these aspects of animal behavior? Ethologists do this primarily through observation. An ethologist may observe animals in their natural environments, in captivity and in the controlled environments of laboratory settings.
Ethologists may study the animal behaviors of a variety of animal species, including domestic animals and endangered species. Observing animal behavior in these different environments allows scientists to collect data from which they can draw conclusions about the causes, functions, development and evolution of the behavior they have observed. The name for the records of their observations that ethologists compile is ethogram.
Why Study Animal Behavior?
You might think that the only real reason to study animal behavior is for the sake of better understanding the animals themselves. While ethologists and other types of animal behaviorists should enjoy working with animals, simply possessing a love of critters and creatures of all kinds isn’t the only reason a person might choose to study animal behavior and ethology.
Through observations of the behaviors exhibited by different animals in different environments and stages of development, ethologists may gain insight into human behavior and development, too. Through a career in animal behavior and ethology, you may produce findings that aid in the development of pharmaceutical medications that can be used to treat health conditions in humans – not only animals – and in interventions that can be used in psychiatry and psychology. In fact, there is a subfield of ethology known as “human ethology” that focuses on the biological basis for human behavior, as opposed to psychological perspectives on human behavior.
Human behavior is changing the world, particularly the environments and climates around us. Animals that live in these environments may struggle to adapt to these changes. Studying animal behavior and ethology can also help humans understand the needs of threatened or endangered species, the causes of their population declines and, hopefully, what can be done to save them from extinction.
Where Do Ethologists Work?
Working with animals is, of course, a big part of studying animal behaviors. Ethologists work in a variety of different environments. Your potential work settings with an animal behavior background depend on how you want to use your education.
Colleges and universities often employ ethologists in both teaching and research roles. If you’re not interested in academia, you might still conduct research while working for wildlife habitats and conservation efforts or for pharmaceutical companies, private science laboratories and government or nonprofit research institutions.
Research is an important part of this branch of science, but not all jobs in animal behavior emphasize research. Jobs in academia tend to require a higher level of education, such as a doctoral-level ethology degree, and extensive knowledge of research methods.
If you are more interested in working in the field of applied animal behavior, you might find employment in animal welfare organizations, animal training services and veterinary medicine facilities.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t publish average salary data for ethologists specifically. Instead, the BLS includes ethologists under the broader occupation of wildlife biologists and zoologists. The median annual salary for wildlife biologists as of 2020 was $64,650, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
How much money you can make working in the field of animal behavior depends on what sort of animal behaviorist career options you pursue. The average annual salary reported for animal behaviorists in 2022 was $45,000, according to PayScale. For the occupation of animal scientist, Salary.com reported an average salary of $54,444.
What Is an Ethology Degree?
Ethology degrees are college-level degrees awarded in the specialized, interdisciplinary area of study of ethology. Many of what could be considered ethology degrees are actually degrees in animal behavior. For example, the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of New England awards a Bachelor of Science in Animal Behavior, while Bucknell University offers Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in animal behavior.
Degree Level Options for Ethologists
You need a degree to become an ethologist. The question that students pursuing careers related to animal behavior and ethology often have is what level of education they will need to work in animal behavior and ethology.
Your first step toward becoming an ethologist is to earn your bachelor’s degree. This undergraduate degree is the minimum level of education that can prepare you to work as an ethologist in some capacity. Completing a bachelor’s degree is also a prerequisite to pursuing graduate-level studies. A bachelor’s degree program consists of at least 120 credit hours of college study and is typically intended to be completed in as little as four years of full-time study.
At the undergraduate degree level, students interested in an animal behavior and ethology career should complete coursework in a variety of subjects in biological sciences, psychology, animal behavior and animal science. A bachelor’s degree curriculum also includes general education coursework that builds students’ knowledge of and skills in mathematics, communication and the humanities and social sciences.
Some entry-level positions exist for wildlife biologists and zoologists in general who have only a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For example, you may use your bachelor’s degree to land a job in applied animal behavior – in other words, animal training.
However, your career opportunities in animal behavior and ethology with only a bachelor’s degree will be limited. An undergraduate degree may be enough to prepare students to work as research assistants. If you want to move beyond the research assistant role, though, you may find that you can’t advance to the position of principal investigator of a research project without having a more advanced education. Similarly, you might apply your knowledge of animal behavior and biology in a role like veterinary technician or animal caregiver, but a bachelor’s degree won’t qualify you to practice veterinary medicine – at least, not without extensive further education.
Animal behavior and ethology degree programs in graduate school are more focused, as well as more advanced. Master of Science or Master of Arts degree programs may be offered on their own or in conjunction with doctorate degree programs. For example, the Master of Science degree in animal behavior at the University of California Davis is only offered to doctoral candidates at the university.
Master’s degree programs typically encompass at least 30 to 36 credits of master’s-level coursework and often take two to three years to complete. Master’s degrees aren’t always required to get into a doctoral program, but having one can grant you advanced standing in a PhD program so that you finish your terminal degree in less time.
Ethologists with master’s degrees may have more opportunities to work in research roles. For example, you might find a job as a research assistant at a college or university or outside of academia in settings like zoos and natural history museums.
Although having a master’s degree opens up more job opportunities in animal behavior and ethology, many ethologists take their studies further. A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree offers the best career opportunities in the field, especially if you want to work in universities or lead research efforts. Generally, doctoral programs are rigorous, research-focused degree programs. During your PhD studies, you can expect to spend a great deal of time in the laboratory, the field or both, conducting research.
Most doctoral candidates take four to six years to complete their PhD in animal behavior and ethology – less if they already hold a master’s degree – and some candidates may take as long as eight years, according to Franklin University. The reason these programs take so long to complete is that PhD degrees aren’t awarded solely for completing a minimum number of course credits.
What to Expect From an Ethology Degree Program
Depending on the university and degree program you choose, animal behavior and ethology degree programs may be offered by psychology departments, biology departments or both departments jointly. The department that offers the degree program may be more heavily reflected in the curriculum, but most animal behavior and ethology degree programs will include a solid combination of psychology and biology coursework. For example, students in most ethology degree programs will likely take courses in animal cognition, animal learning and animal physiology.
The field of animal behavior and ethology is fairly broad. A student seeking a degree in ethology and animal behavior will often have a lot of flexibility in their curriculum, allowing them to develop a foundation in the basics of the field while building areas of more extensive expertise in a subject of interest. Classes in subjects like anthropology, philosophy, linguistics and environmental studies may also be part of this interdisciplinary program of study.
The Bachelor of Science in Animal Behavior program at Indiana University—Bloomington, for example, includes required introductory courses in psychology, the foundations of biology and animal behavior. Ethology majors would then take their desired combination of major coursework, making sure to take a minimum number of courses in each of three perspectives: evolutionary and ecological, mechanisms of behavior and environmental developmental and cognitive.
In an ethology or animal behavior degree program, you’re going to need to do a lot more than merely attend class and turn in homework. Hands-on experience is critical for ethology majors. Much of the bachelor’s degree curriculum in animal behavior and ethology revolves around lab work and activities that allow students to gain field experience.
Research is an important part of an animal behavior and ethology degree program, too. Undergraduate students can expect to learn about research methods and experimental design, and they may have an opportunity to complete an independent research project. Students seeking a master’s degree will have to write a research thesis, and doctoral students must complete a dissertation. A student of an animal behavior or ethology degree program may work as a research assistant in a faculty member’s laboratory, contributing to their research and acquiring their first publication credits.
Other Majors for Prospective Ethologists
Not all schools offer majors in ethology or animal behavior specifically. Fortunately, your educational options aren’t limited to an undergraduate animal behavior and ethology degree. Ethologists may approach the career with a bachelor’s degree in a related subject of study, such as biology or psychology.
A student who majors in biology or biological sciences will devote their college career to studying the science of life and living organisms. Biology or biological sciences is the typical preparation for wildlife biologists, a career closely related to ethologist. Naturally, those organisms include animals. Biology provides an excellent background for the field of ethology because much of this field concerns looking at animal behavior from a biological perspective rather than a psychological perspective.
An undergraduate curriculum in biological science will likely include coursework in general biology, cell biology, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, ecology, genetics and anatomy and physiology.
If you start your college studies as a psychology major, you will learn a great deal about the mind, thought and behavior. Understanding cognition, learning and development over the lifespan is important for ethologists, but prospective ethologists who choose this major should also take courses in biological science.
Most undergraduate psychology programs are general psychology programs that provide an overview of a variety of areas in this broad field. In addition to introductory classes in the concepts and methods of psychology, you should expect to take courses such as developmental psychology, child psychology, social psychology, clinical psychology, abnormal psychology, biological psychology, cognitive psychology and psychology of learning.